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The space race is back on – but who will win? | Space

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Liu Boming took in the dizzy view. Around him lay the inky vastness of space. Below was the Earth. “Wow,” he said, laughing. “It’s too beautiful out here.” Over the next seven hours Liu and his colleague Tang Hongbo carried out China’s second spacewalk, helped along by a giant robotic arm.

Mission accomplished, the two taikonauts – China’s astronauts – clambered back into their home for the next three months: Beijing’s new space station. The core module of the station, named Tiangong, meaning “heavenly palace”, was launched in April. “There will be more spacewalks. The station will keep growing,” Liu said.

Meanwhile, on Mars, a Chinese rover was exploring. Video shows the vehicle trundling over a rocky surface. There is even sound: an eerie mechanical groaning. Since landing in May the Zhurong probe has been busy seeking clues as to whether Mars once supported life. There is no answer yet: so far it has travelled just over 410 metres.

China is only the second country to land and operate a rover on the red planet, after the US. The frantic tempo of the China National Space Administration’s (CNSA) recent programme is reminiscent of the cold war, when Moscow and Washington were superpower rivals scrambling to put the first man in space and land on the moon.

Half a century on, space has opened up. It is less ideological and a lot more crowded. About 72 countries have space programmes, including India, Brazil, Japan, Canada, South Korea and the UAE. The European Space Agency is active too, while the UK boasts the most private space startups after the US.

Space today is also highly commercial. On Sunday Richard Branson flew to the edge of space and back again in his Virgin Galactic passenger rocket. On Tuesday, Branson’s fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos is due to travel in his own reusable craft, New Shepard, built by the Amazon founder’s company Blue Origin and launched from west Texas.

Billionaire Richard Branson floats in zero gravity at the edge of space on Virgin Galactic’s rocket.
Billionaire Richard Branson floats in zero gravity at the edge of space on Virgin Galactic’s rocket. Photograph: Virgin Galactic/Reuters

Non-state actors play an increasingly important role in space exploration. Elon Musk’s SpaceX vehicles have made numerous flights to the International Space Station (ISS), and since last year they have transported people as well as cargo. Later this year Musk is due to send his own all-civilian crew into orbit – though he isn’t going himself.

Even so, space still reflects tensions on Earth. “Astropolitics follows terrapolitics,” says Mark Hilborne, a lecturer in defence studies at King’s College London. Up there anything goes, he adds. “Space governance is a bit fuzzy. Laws are few and very old. They are not written for asteroid mining or for a time when companies dominate.”

The biggest challenge to US space supremacy comes not from Russia – heir to the Soviet Union’s pioneering space programme, which launched the Sputnik satellite and got the first human into space in the form of Yuri Gagarin – but from China.

In 2011 Congress prohibited US scientists from cooperating with Beijing. Its fear: scientific espionage. Taikonauts are banned from visiting the ISS, which has hosted astronauts from 19 countries over the past 20 years. The station’s future beyond 2028 is uncertain. Its operations may yet be extended in the face of increasing Chinese competition.

In its annual threat assessment this April, the office of the US Director of National Intelligence (DNI) described China as a “near-peer competitor” pushing for global power. It warns: “Beijing is working to match or exceed US capabilities in space to gain the military, economic, and prestige benefits that Washington has accrued from space leadership.”

The Biden administration suspects Chinese satellites are being used for non-civilian purposes. The People’s Liberation Army integrates reconnaissance and navigation data in military command and control systems, the DNI says. “Satellites are inherently dual use. It’s not like the difference between an F15 fighter jet and a 737 passenger plane,” Hilborne says.

Once China completes the Tiangong space station next year, it is likely to invite foreign astronauts to take part in missions. One goal: to build new soft-power alliances. Beijing says interest from other countries is enormous. The low Earth orbit station is part of an ambitious development strategy in the heavens rather than on land – a sort of belt and rocket initiative.

Liu Boming leaving China’s new Tiangong space station earlier this month to go on the second space walk in the country’s history.
Liu Boming leaving China’s new Tiangong space station earlier this month to go on the second space walk in the country’s history. Photograph: Jin Liwang/AP

According to Alanna Krolikowski, an assistant professor at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, a “bifurcation” of space exploration is under way. In one emerging camp are states led by China and Russia, many of them authoritarian; in the other are democracies and “like-minded” countries aligned with the US.

Russia has traditionally worked closely with the Americans, even when terrestrial relations were bad. Now it is moving closer to Beijing. In March, China and Russia announced plans to co-build an international lunar research station. The agreement comes at a time when Vladimir Putin’s government has been increasingly isolated and subject to western sanctions. In June, Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping renewed a friendship treaty. Moscow is cosying up to Beijing out of necessity, at a time of rising US-China bipolarity.

These rival geopolitical factions are fighting over a familiar mountainous surface: the moon. In 2019 a Chinese rover landed on its far side – a first. China is now planning a mission to the moon’s south pole, to establish a robotic research station and an eventual lunar base, which would be intermittently crewed.

Nasa, meanwhile, has said it intends to put a woman and a person of colour on the moon by 2024. SpaceX has been hired to develop a lander. The return to the moon – after the last astronaut, commander Eugene Cernan, said goodbye in December 1972 – would be a staging post for the ultimate “giant leap”, Nasa says: sending astronauts to Mars.

Private firms such as Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin are maintaining the US’s status as the world’s greatest space power.
Private firms such as Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin are maintaining the US’s status as the world’s greatest space power. Photograph: Chuck Bigger/Alamy

Krolikowski is sceptical that China will quickly overtake the US to become the world’s leading spacefaring country. “A lot of what China is doing is a reprisal of what the cold war space programmes did in the 1960s and 1970s,” she said. Beijing’s recent feats of exploration have as much to do with national pride as scientific discovery, she says.

But there is no doubting Beijing’s desire to catch up, she adds. “The Chinese government has established, or has plans for, programmes or missions in every major area, whether it’s Mars missions, building mega constellations of telecommunications satellites, or exploring asteroids. There is no single area of space activity they are not involved in.”

“We see a tightening of the Russia-China relationship,” Krolikowski says. “In the 1950s the Soviet Union provided a wide range of technical assistance to Beijing. Since the 1990s, however, the Russian space establishment has experienced long stretches of underfunding and stagnation. China now presents it with new opportunities.”

Russia is poised to benefit from cost sharing, while China gets deep-rooted Russian technical expertise. At least, that’s the theory. “I’m sceptical this joint space project will materialise anytime soon,” says Alexander​ Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Centre. Gabuev says both countries are “techno-nationalist”. Previous agreements to develop helicopters and wide-bodied aircraft saw nothing actually made, he says.

China’s Zhurong Mars rover with its landing platform, which reached the planet in May
China’s Zhurong Mars rover with its landing platform, which reached the planet in May Photograph: CNSA/ZUMA Press Wire Service/REX/Shutterstock

The Kremlin has been a key partner in managing and resupplying the ISS. US astronauts used Russian Soyuz rockets to reach the station, taking off from a cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, after the Space Shuttle programme was phased out. But this epoch seems to be coming to an end as private companies such as SpaceX take over. “I expect US-Russian relations to get worse,” Gabuev says, adding that Americans “no longer need” Russia’s help.

Moscow’s state corporation for space activities, Roscosmos, has faced accusations of being more interested in politics than space research. Last month the newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that Roscosmos’s executive director of manned space programmes, former cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, had been fired. His apparent crime: questioning an official decision to shoot a film on the Russian section of the ISS.

Yulia Peresild: heading to space.
Yulia Peresild: heading to space. Photograph: Stephane Cardinale – Corbis/Corbis/Getty Images

The film, Challenge, is about a female surgeon operating on a cosmonaut in space, and has been backed and financed by Roscosmos . It stars Yulia Peresild, who is due to head to space in October with director Klim Shipenko. The launch seems timed to beat Tom Cruise, who is due to shoot his own movie on board the ISS with director Doug Liman.

Krikalev, who spent more than 800 days in space and was in orbit when the USSR collapsed, apparently told Roscomos’s chief, Dmitry Rogozin, that the film was pointless. Rogozin – its co-producer – has called on the west to drop sanctions in return for Russia’s cooperation on space projects. Putin, Rogozin’s boss, appears to not be very interested in other planets, though, and is more concerned with nature and the climate crisis these days.

“Space is one of the areas that has traditionally transcended politics. The Mir space station worked at a time of east-west tensions. There was symbolic cooperation. Whether this will continue in the future is really up for debate,” Hilborne says. “The US is very sensitive about what happens in space.”

Most observers think the US will remain the world’s pre-eminent space power, thanks to its innovative and flourishing private sector. China’s Soviet-style state programme appears less nimble. Despite ambitious timetables, and billions spent by Beijing, it is unclear when – or even if – an astronaut will return to the moon. The 2030s, perhaps? Will they be American or Chinese? Or from a third country?

It may well be that the first person to boldly go again doesn’t merely represent a nation or carry a flag. More likely, they will emerge from a lunar lander wearing a spacesuit with a SpaceX logo on the back – a giant leap not only for mankind, but for galactic marketing.



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California’s net neutrality law dodges Big Telecom bullet • The Register

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The US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday upheld a lower court’s refusal to block California’s net neutrality law (SB 822), affirming that state laws can regulate internet connectivity where federal law has gone silent.

The decision is a blow to the large internet service providers that challenged California’s regulations, which prohibit network practices that discriminate against lawful applications and online activities. SB 822, for example, forbids “zero-rating” programs that exempt favored services from customer data allotments, paid prioritization, and blocking or degrading service.

In 2017, under the leadership of then-chairman Ajit Pai, the US Federal Communications Commission tossed out America’s net neutrality rules, to the delight of the internet service providers that had to comply. Then in 2018, the FCC issued an order that redefined broadband internet services, treating them as “information services” under Title I of the Communications Act instead of more regulated “telecommunications services” under Title II of the Communications Act.

California lawmaker Scott Wiener (D) crafted SB 822 to implement the nixed 2015 Open Internet Order on a state level, in an effort to fill the vacuum left by the FCC’s abdication. SB 822, the “California Internet Consumer Protection and Net Neutrality Act of 2018,” was signed into law in September 2018 and promptly challenged.

In October 2018, a group of cable and telecom trade associations sued California to prevent SB 822 from being enforced. In February, 2021, Judge John Mendez of the United States District Court for Eastern California declined to grant the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction to block the law. 

So the trade groups took their case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has now rejected their arguments. While federal laws can preempt state laws, the FCC’s decision to reclassify broadband services has moved those services outside its authority and opened a gap that state regulators are now free to fill.

“We conclude the district court correctly denied the preliminary injunction,” the appellate ruling [PDF] says. “This is because only the invocation of federal regulatory authority can preempt state regulatory authority.

The FCC no longer has the authority to regulate in the same manner that it had when these services were classified as telecommunications services

“As the D.C. Circuit held in Mozilla, by classifying broadband internet services as information services, the FCC no longer has the authority to regulate in the same manner that it had when these services were classified as telecommunications services. The agency, therefore, cannot preempt state action, like SB 822, that protects net neutrality.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which supported California in an amicus brief, celebrated the decision in a statement emailed to The Register.

“EFF is pleased that the Ninth Circuit has refused to bar enforcement of California’s pioneering net neutrality rules, recognizing a very simple principle: the federal government can’t simultaneously refuse to protect net neutrality and prevent anyone else from filling the gap,” a spokesperson said.

“Californians can breathe a sigh of relief that their state will be able to do its part to ensure fair access to the internet for all, at a time when we most need it.”

There’s still the possibility that the plaintiffs – ACA Connects, CTIA, NCTA and USTelecom – could appeal to the US Supreme Court.

In an emailed statement, the organizations told us, “We’re disappointed and will review our options. Once again, a piecemeal approach to this issue is untenable and Congress should codify national rules for an open Internet once and for all.” ®

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RCSI scientists find potential treatment for secondary breast cancer

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An existing drug called PARP inhibitor can be used to exploit a vulnerability in the way breast cancer cells repair their DNA, preventing spread to the brain.

For a long time, there have been limited treatment options for patients with breast cancer that has spread to the brain, sometimes leaving them with just months to live. But scientists at the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI) have found a potential treatment using existing drugs.

By tracking the development of tumours from diagnosis to their spread to the brain, a team of researchers at RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences and the Beaumont RCSI Cancer Centre found a previously unknown vulnerability in the way the tumours repair their DNA.

An existing kind of drug known as a PARP inhibitor, often used to treat heritable cancers, can prevent cancer cells from repairing their DNA because of this vulnerability, culminating in the cells dying and the patient being rid of the cancer.

Prof Leonie Young, principal investigator of the RCSI study, said that breast cancer research focused on expanding treatment options for patients whose disease has spread to the brain is urgently needed to save the lives of those living with the disease.

“Our study represents an important development in getting one step closer to a potential treatment for patients with this devastating complication of breast cancer,” she said of the study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Deaths caused by breast cancer are often a result of treatment relapses which lead to tumours spreading to other parts of the body, a condition known as secondary or metastatic breast cancer. This kind of cancer is particularly aggressive and lethal when it spreads to the brain.

The study was funded by Breast Cancer Ireland with support from Breast Cancer Now and Science Foundation Ireland.

It was carried out as an international collaboration with the Mayo Clinic and the University of Pittsburgh in the US. Apart from Prof Young, the other RCSI researchers were Dr Nicola Cosgrove, Dr Damir Varešlija and Prof Arnold Hill.

“By uncovering these new vulnerabilities in DNA pathways in brain metastasis, our research opens up the possibility of novel treatment strategies for patients who previously had limited targeted therapy options”, said Dr Varešlija.

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Surface Duo 2 review: Microsoft’s dual-screen Android needs work | Microsoft

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Microsoft’s second attempt at its interesting dual-screen Android smartphone corrects some mistakes of the original, but falls short of a revolution due to a series of oddities created by its physical laptop-like form.

Looking more like a tiny convertible computer than a phone, the Surface Duo 2 starts at £1,349 ($1,499/A$2,319), a lot for a regular smartphone but slightly cheaper than folding-screen rivals.

It opens like a book, with each half just 5.5mm thick, and a hinge that allows it to fold all the way over.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
There is no screen on the outside, but the time and some basic alerts for SMS and calls can be shown down the spine of the hinge. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Inside are a pair of 90Hz OLED screens each measuring 5.8in on the diagonal. They can be used on their own or combined as one display measuring 8.3in – a similar size to an iPad mini. Both screens are covered in traditional scratch-resistant smartphone glass and have large, old-fashioned bezels top and bottom.

Having two separate displays rather than one that folds in half creates a major drawback: a gap in the middle of the screen big enough that you can see through it, which is much harder to ignore than the crease in the middle of a flexible display as found on the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
The gap between the screens sits right in the middle of the combined display, which makes full-screen reading, scrolling and watching video awkward. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

You can use two different apps at the same time on the two screens. The theory is sound, but I found few pairings were useful beyond simple messaging apps and a browser. More useful was using one screen for a note-taking app and the other for a full keyboard like a mini laptop.

Some apps spanned across both displays, like Outlook, can put different information on each screen, such as your inbox on one side and an open message on the other. Some games, including Asphalt 9 and Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass streaming service, put controls on one screen and the action on the other. But there are very few apps and games optimised for this setup.

microsoft surface duo 2 review
The two screens can be folded into various configurations, including just a single display, both combined into one large display, propped up like a tent or open like a mini laptop. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Specifications

  • Screens: two 5.8in AMOLED 90Hz displays

  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888

  • RAM: 8GB of RAM

  • Storage: 128, 256 or 512GB

  • Operating system: Android 11

  • Cameras: 12MP wide, 16MP ultra-wide, 12MP 2x telephoto; 12MP selfie

  • Connectivity: 5G, USB-C, wifi 6, NFC, Bluetooth 5.1 and location

  • Water resistance: IPX1 (dripping water)

  • Dimensions closed: 145.2 x 92.1 x 11.0mm

  • Dimensions open: 145.2 x 184.5 x 5.5mm

  • Weight: 284g

2021’s top Android chip

microsoft surface duo 2 review
It takes two hours 15 minutes to fully charge the Duo 2 hitting 50% in 45 minutes, using a 45W USB-C charger (not included), which is pretty slow compared to rivals. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Duo 2 has last year’s top Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip with 8GB of RAM, matching the performance of top-flight Android smartphones from 2021 and capable of running two apps running side-by-side without slowdown.

Battery life is more variable than a traditional phone. It lasts about 32 hours between charges, with both screens used for about four hours with a variety of messaging, browsing and work apps. It lasts about a third longer if you mostly use only one screen. That’s a considerably shorter battery life than a regular smartphone and behind the Z Fold 3.

Sustainability

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
The camera sticks quite far out of the glass back stopping it from sitting flat on a desk. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Microsoft does not provide an expected lifespan for the Duo 2’s battery; those in similar devices typically maintain at least 80% of their original capacity for in excess of 500 full charge cycles. Microsoft charges an out-of-warranty service fee of £593.94 to repair devices and £568.44 to replace the battery. The previous generation Surface Duo scored only two out of 10 on iFixit’s repairability scale.

The phone contains no recycled materials, but Microsoft operates recycling schemes for old devices, publishes a company-wide sustainability report and a breakdown of each product’s environmental impact.

Android 11

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
The single screen mode is hard to use one-handed and most Android apps and websites are designed for longer screens, not short and fat ones, so you end up having to do a lot more scrolling than you would on a regular phone. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Duo 2 runs Android 11 – not the latest Android 12 – and generally behaves like a standard Android smartphone or tablet with a few small additions that make it easier to use each screen separately. One of the best is the ability to drag the gesture bar at the bottom of an app to move it between screens or to drop it on to the gap between the screens to span it across both displays.

The software can be a bit unpredictable at times, such as opening the keyboard or text box of an app on another screen or hiding a second app from the screen when you try to type. But it is generally a fast and responsive experience given how unusual the device is.

The Duo 2 will receive three years of software updates from release, including monthly security patches, which is disappointingly at least a year short of what rivals, including Samsung and Apple, offer. Microsoft’s last planned update for the Duo 2 will be 21 October 2024.

Camera

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
Because the camera is on the back of the device, it would be blocked if you fold one of the screens over, meaning you have to shoot photos with both screens open – which is unwieldy. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Duo 2 has a triple camera on the back and a 12-megapixel selfie camera above the right-hand screen.

The rear main 12MP camera and 2x telephoto cameras are good, capable of producing detailed shots in a range of lighting conditions. The 16MP ultra-wide camera is reasonable, but a bit soft on detail and struggles with challenging scenes. The camera app has most of the features you’d expect, such as portrait mode, night mode and slow-mo video, and can shoot regular video at up to 4K at 60 frames a second.

The 12MP selfie camera is capable of shooting detailed photos even in middling light, and has access to the dedicated night mode when it gets dark.

Overall, the camera system on the Duo 2 is solid, but it can’t hold a candle to the best in the business.

Observations

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
The camera lump on the back stops the device folding fully flat, creating a wedge shape when using one screen only. The shiny power button is also a fingerprint scanner, which was fairly fast and reliable. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
  • The Duo 2 supports Microsoft’s Slim Pen stylus, which can be magnetically stored and charged on the back of the device when not in use.

  • The stereo speakers are decently loud but a bit tinny, fine for watching YouTube videos.

  • The width of the device makes it a challenge to fit into smaller pockets.

Price

The Surface Duo 2 costs £1,349 ($1,499/A$2,319) with 128GB, £1,429 ($1,599/A$2,469) with 256GB or £1,589 ($1,799/A$2,769) with 512GB of storage.

For comparison, the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 costs £1,599 and the Galaxy Z Flip 3 costs £949.

Verdict

The Surface Duo 2 is an improvement on its predecessor, but is still a very odd proposition that’s neither a good phone nor a good tablet.

The individual screens are short and stout, forcing lots of scrolling in apps when using it like a phone and making one-handed use very difficult. The gap at the hinge makes combining them into one big tablet screen awkward too.

Using two apps side-by-side works well, but few combinations proved useful or faster than just quick switching between two apps on one screen on a normal phone. There is more potential in apps like Outlook that provide a multi-pane view, but few apps or games are optimised for the dual-screen system.

Microsoft is only offering a disappointing three years of software and security updates from release for the Duo 2, too, losing it a star.

It is good to see Microsoft trying something different. But ultimately the Duo 2’s two screens are just not yet as good or useful as either a single phone screen or a bigger folding screen, making it an expensive halfway house.

Pros: two screens, two apps side-by-side, multiple modes, top performance, hardened glass screens, decent camera, head-turning design.

Cons: gap between screens, few optimised apps, average battery life, bulky camera lump, chunky in pocket, hard to use one-handed, no real water resistance, only three years of software updates from release.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
The outside of the device is smooth glass front and back with quality-feeling plastic edges and a metal hinge. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

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